‘Why do we need a leader’ is the precise theme of this week’s Torah portion. Korach and his cronies challenge Moses with the following argument:
“All the people in the community are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting yourselves above G-d’s congregation?”
The fact that Korach’s argument is documented for posterity is proof that his position has merit. Indeed, Korach was a ‘pikach,’ a wise man. Thus his argument is not to be easily dismissed; it is a wise viewpoint that requires deliberation and consideration.
Korach was essentially arguing against bureaucratic hierarchies. The Torah and Judaism are built on the firm and unwavering principle that all people have a Divine soul (created in the “image of G-d”), and by that virtue have direct access to G-d at all times. Where then, Korach asked, is there room for leaders that are “above G-d’s congregation”?
No one individual owns the Torah. It belongs to all people. Why, because Torah is not a product for marketing, nor is it a corporation. Torah is Divine truth – a blueprint for life, consisting of knowledge and information given to all people to guide them in finding their way in this world. As such, Torah is free. No one has monopoly on Torah and no one can demand ‘royalties’ for its study. Indeed, the Talmud says that every child is taught the Torah in its mother’s womb during pregnancy; in each of our psyches is ingrained the Divine will and wisdom – all the tolls that we will need for our life’s journey.
This powerful fact can be appreciated by seeing the effects of the converse approach. “From my enemies I become wise.” Whenever a fascist or totalitarian regime comes to power, the first thing it establishes is a ‘bureau of truth of information.’ Why, because to control a population you need to control the minds of the people. ‘Propaganda’ is what they call it. This, the regime will control the media and the airwaves, to ensure that the people hear and see only the information that the leaders want to convey. Free press – the free flow of information is anathema and definite suicide to any dictatorial power. As Thomas Jefferson said, that given the choice, he would choose a free press to free government. Because without a free press there is no free government.
Whenever you hear that there is a “bureau of truth and information,” rest assured that it neither ‘truth’ nor ‘information’…
Korach argued just that. “All the people in the community are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting yourselves above G-d’s congregation.” Why do we need leaders and teachers and run the risk of abuse. As we have so often seen, lately as well, how so called ‘authorities’ have abused their position, and have not taught the pure truth, but their distorted version of the truth. How many people have been hurt by innocently believing in their teachers, only later (some later than others, and some have yet) to find out how those teachers misrepresented the truth?!
So Korach argued, why risk it? Torah was given by G-d to all the people, and they are all holy, why give exclusive power to leaders, power that can be abused?!
3314 years ago the Torah was given in the Sinai wilderness precisely to pre-empt the possibility of fascist abuse. By giving the Torah in a wilderness, which is no-mans’ land, G-d was telling us that “no one city can lay claim to the Torah. I have given My truth to all of you, and you each have access to it.” Incredible fact. The Bible – the Torah – is the biggest best seller in history. Yet, no one owns it. No one can claim royalties for it!
And the Torah was passed on from generation to generation, in an unbroken chain, with no corporate transitions and bureaucratic infrastructures. Moses did not appoint a ‘board of directors’ and a new “CEO.” Moses left us the Torah and his students, and so it continued from generation to generation. As delineated in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers):
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets…”.
What then was Korach’s mistake, and grave mistake at that? His argument seems plausible and even true. What is the answer to his question: Why do we need leaders, and what will prevent them from abusing their power?
Korach’s serious error was in his understanding of the nature of a true leader. In his mind a leader meant a powerful person who serves as a human intermediary between G-d and the people, between the Torah’s truth and the students. He thought that a leader is defined by his strengths – his wisdom, his charisma, his wealth, all the qualities necessary to lead a large group of individuals.
A true leader is precisely the opposite. He is defined not by what he is, but by what he is not. The single most important quality of a true leader is: bittul – humility (“Moses was the most humble among all people on Earth”). He is invisible, and therefore becomes a vehicle (merkavah) to G-dliness; he is a living example and the epitome of how G-d wants a person to be.
Deifying individuals is anathema to Judaism. Idolatry is a cardinal sin. We only worship G-d and G-d alone. The greatness of a Tzaddik, a Rebbe, a Moses is not the power of the individual, but the power of G-d that is working through that person. Indeed, there cannot be even the slightest tinge of individual ego or personality that gets in the way and does not allow the inherent G-dliness to shine through.
And the reason we need Moses, and a Moses in each generation (Moses passed on the Torah to Joshua, etc.), is because we as individuals are consumed and overwhelmed by material life, we have our egos and personalities that get in the way to accessing G-d and the Torah’s truth. We need a selfless leader, a teacher to guide us and show us the way to access our souls and G-d. And when Moses guides us he does not show us how he (Moses) accesses G-d, but he shows us how we have direct access to G-d through our Divine souls.
The true leader, in other words, is not an intermediary that stands in the way between us and G-d; his selflessness and bittul allows him to be a transparent channel in helping us connect to G-d in our own unique way. A true teacher does not teach you his own truth, he teaches you that it is a Higher truth and that it belongs to you as much as it does to the teacher. The true teacher has no ego, he recognizes at all times that he is merely a messenger passing on truth from a greater place. Indeed, the greatest title of a Torah scholar is not “chacham,” a wise person, but “talmid chacham,” the student of a wise person. The scholar always feels the bittul that he is merely a student of Divine wisdom. “Reishis chohma yiras Hashem” (the beginning and foundation of wisdom is awe of G-d).
Korach’s reasoning was accurate in the fact that all people are holy and have direct access to G-d. There was also justification in his questioning the role of leadership, exposing its potential abuse and distortions. That is why the Torah documents Korach’s argument.
But even if his arguments had merit, Korach’s intentions were wrong. Indeed, though he challenged Moses’ leadership, he demanded leadership for himself (very reminiscent of the fact that though Communism theoretically argues the equality of all classes, Communist leaders were the most notorious abusers of leadership) – all the more reason for needing a true selfless leader!
Korach was absolutely wrong because he did not understand the true nature of a leader – one who is totally humble and selfless. Leadership is not about power and ambition; it is about bittul and selflessness. And that is the only reason that we can trust a true leader, and the reason G-d trusted Moses. When G-d chose Moses to be the leader, Moses strongly resisted. “I am a man of no words” was one of the many arguments Moses offered in refusing to be the leader. G-d replies: “Who then gives a man the mouth to speak if not I.” G-d essentially chose Moses precisely because he did not want the job, and because he would not speak his own words; he would speak G-d’s words.
This type of leader was completely new to Korach and his men. No one had ever met a leader like that. So they challenged the very concept based on their limited experience. But as a result of their argument we gain a new understanding of the nature of a true leader. This is the value of Torah relating to us the story of Korach, and we owe Korach a great debt for allowing the role of true leadership to be clarified for us, and exposing the distortions of false leadership.
This story offers us a very relevant message today.
I submit, that many of us are simply skeptical about a true leader – a Rebbe – because we never met one. The so-called ‘leaders’ around us – political, business, sports, entertainment – are essentially at best nothing more that good administrators, or people driven by aggressive ambition that allowed them to climb the leadership ladder. I am not even addressing the rampant corruption surrounding leaders that we are all aware and reminded of continuously.
I (and many of my colleagues), however, had the distinct privilege and honor to meet such a leader. A G-dly man entirely dedicated to the Higher Cause. His name was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Or simply: The Rebbe – the leader.
As a true leader, humility was his personality. A man in whose presence you felt not him, but yourself – you felt that you belong, that you matter and have an indispensable contribution to make in this world.
With all the current upheaval in a world that is rapidly changing right before our eyes, the void of true leadership is glaringly obvious. From the Rebbe I learned how to access my own soul. I learned how to access the Torah – thousands of years of history and scholarship – to understand our lives today and the forces reshaping our geo-political as well as our psycho-spiritual landscapes.
On Motzei Shabbat Parshat Korach, Saturday night of Tammuz 3 5754 (June 12, 1994), Korach’s challenge to Moses manifested itself. We have all been challenged to understand the role of a Rebbe-leader in our lives today.
In the last eight years – and especially in the last year – the world has changed dramatically, with many more changes to come. We are desperately in need of true leadership – and there is no question that G-d would not challenge us without providing us with the necessary tools. Even as Korach questions the role of leader, the continuing Torah portion provides us with the power to find the answer, that yes, we need a leader, and yes, Moses is G-d’s chosen leader.
I turn to my Rebbe and his teachings – explaining the times in which we live from a Torah perspective – to make sense of the unsettling events surrounding us today. And I find enormous strength and clarity in the Torah vision.
We each are challenged today to answer Korach’s argument. If we do not want to be left floundering amidst countless questions in an increasingly confusing world, it behooves us to turn to Moses and his teachings for hope and direction. We need to discover the selfless leader that can help us see through the haze.
Oh, how we are in need for such a leader today…